“Nightwood” by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, org. published in 1936, Faber.

If you ever wished Ulysses was shorter and had more lesbians, this is for you.

Of course that is simplifying Nightwood a great deal. In fact it’s not an easy novel to grasp or describe at all, which in turn is true for a lot of the novels of modernism. And this novel is certainly modernistic.

Truth is this may not be for everyone, but I still think it’s a book everyone ought to give a try. And, as far as I know, it’s not a novel a lot of people are aware even exists. All the more reason for me to sing its praises.

Everyman dies finally of that poison known as the-heart-in-the-mouth. Yours is in your hand. Put it back. The eater of it will get a taste for you; in the end his muzzle will be heard barking among your ribs.

I wish I could say something clever about it. But it eludes me, the same way Ulysses did back in the day. Nightwood is “easier”, more accessible and more forceful, in a way. It moves the reader, shoves us around; it’s unpleasant, brilliant and insistent.

Some novels force the breath out of your lungs, they force you to breathe the air they breathe, to live the life they create for you and to believe in the things they tell you. When done you forget your own words, you’re left with an empty spot where your language used to be. I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t, which is a compliment, truly, to the power of this novel.

There’s an obsessiveness to it. A desperate desire permeates every sentence, a desire you know cannot be fulfilled. Only the doctor of the story (a cross dresser, who perhaps inhabits more than simply one world, perhaps all the worlds, a sort of prophet who spills truths as if they were drops of water) seems consigned to this fate of unfulfillment.

At the center is Robin; child, lover, apparition. She slips through the hands of everyone, even those who loves her desperately. And beside  her, behind her, is Nora, the doomed lover, helplessly waiting for Robin to return, to settle down, all the while knowing it’s not in her nature.

It’s a condensed story, weaving several fates together, always intersecting, touching each other even after the last goodbye has been said. The characters are not many, but they contain multitudes, worlds, they are so many things on so few pages.

I know you shouldn’t compare, but I read Ulysses last January, and I read Nightwood this January, and they are alike. In style, in tone, in vision, and in so many ways they are opposites. Perhaps Nightwood is what would’ve happened had Molly Bloom left her dull husband and had an affair with a woman. And this theme of lesbianism is crucial, because it gives voice to those who didn’t have one, and gives them a place in modern, classic literature (even if it may continue a tradition of non-happy endings for lesbians in literature). I’m saddened Nightwood is not a more widely known work (or so it seems to me), because it deserves attention, scrutiny, criticism and devoted love.

It is love, obsession, joy, jealousy, sexuality, wonder, desperation, all the big things in a constantly transforming pattern. You give yourself up the novel, it gives itself back to you.

Our bones ache only while the flesh is on them. Stretch it as thin as the temple flesh of an ailing woman and still it serves to ache the bone and to move the bone about; and in like manner the night is skin pulled over the head of the day that the day may be in torment. We will find no comfort until the night melts away; until the fury of the night rots out its fire.


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